Monday, 24 March 2014

Savaging dissent: on the right's refusal to get March in March

Photo: the author

It is now over a week since more than 100,000 Australians took to the streets in nationwide protests, collectively dubbed March in March, against the Abbott government. I joined a crowd of around 5,000 in Adelaide, the first city in which preparations have already begun for a follow-up, the similarly alliterative March in May, to be held a few days after the federal budget is delivered. No doubt, for the nation’s progressives, there will be much to discuss and decry.

The reaction of the mainstream media to last weekend’s protests has been absorbing. Initial, properly journalistic coverage by the ABC and Channel 9 boded well but the flavour of the commentary to come was encapsulated early by a misleading Channel 7 report, which characterised the Adelaide event as an unsavoury scrap between the protestors and members of the notorious Street Church. For much of the protest I was just a few metres from where the preachers had dug in with their hateful, deliberately confrontational placards and can happily assure Channel 7 that the overwhelming response of the protestors was to ignore them.

To ignore was, also, the first response of the right wing commentariat to the marches, but their unexpectedly large turnouts made that posture look, at best, out of touch and, at worst, spineless. It is a measure of the Abbott government’s success in reenergising the culture wars that when the conservative press found its voice on the subject (and there really was only one voice) it was a hysterical one, outraged and shrill, full of the same missionary zeal with which the right’s culture warriors prosecuted their case for an insular and safely homogenous nation during the reign of John Howard.

This piece by Malcolm Farr, National Political Editor for, was typical, but his sniffy disdain was surpassed by a feverish Andrew Bolt who labelled the protestors ‘barbarians’ and ‘savages’, and the aptly named Tory Shepherd whose cliché-riddled smear job appeared to blame the protestors for her failure to comprehend their messages. (The diatribes were not, it should be pointed out, limited to News Corp; Jacqueline Maley’s report for the Sydney Morning Herald would have run without controversy in any of the Murdoch tabloids).

Two criticisms were common to all of the denunciations: that the protestors’ signs were disrespectful and offensive in the same way the ‘Ditch the Witch’ and ‘Bob Brown’s Bitch’ signs had been during the 2011 anti-carbon price rally Convoy of No Confidence, and that March in March was not a legitimate protest but an incoherent ‘grab-bag’ of grievances.

There is no question that a handful of the placards I saw in Adelaide were in extremely poor taste. Some contained allusions to Nazism, and one man had stupidly inverted the ‘Ditch the Witch’ business with a Julie Bishop-riding broomstick. But – and it’s a big but – the obsessive trawling for images of this minority of protestors by the denunciators illustrates how well behaved and civil the vast majority of protestors were. Most of the placards were impersonal, related to policies, not politicians, and many were ingenious.

I would also ask these commentators to consider Stephen Fry’s wonderful hypothetical hospital in which psychological treatment is given for those who claim to be deeply offended by words but who are unmoved by violence, repression and injustice. The real stories on the day did not come from t-shirts with the word ‘fuck’ on them, but from students, single mothers, Indigenous Australians and working men who are suffering as a direct result of the Coalition’s policies.                    

The second major criticism, that the rallies were somehow invalid because the protestors raised multiple issues, is harder to address because it is harder to know what is meant by it. It may be that the obvious response – so what? – is the most correct. The same criticism was levelled at the Occupy movement which has gone on being wilfully misunderstood by conservatives in the US long after it has become abundantly clear to everybody what the issues are and what is at stake.

Noam Chomsky has likened Occupy to the ‘large-scale popular activism’ that helped to ferment the right political atmosphere for the New Deal legislation of the 1930s. The New Deal, famously, was not about one issue but the ‘three Rs’: relief (for the poor and jobless); recovery (of the economy); and reform (of the financial system to prevent another depression). Were the ordinary Americans pushing for these reforms unworthy because their platform for change was a broad one? Why the surprise at the fact that the Abbott government’s attacks on welfare, the unions, the environment and asylum seekers have catalysed a heterogeneous movement?

What the right will not admit is that their real issue with March in March is that so many Australians – not ‘urban elites’, socialists or hippies, but a stunningly diverse coalition of ordinary men and women – turned up. Andrew Bolt thought it ‘arrogant’ of Labor to dismiss the Convoy of No Confidence which drew a mere 1000 people (and was possibly an Astroturf job anyway) but has said nothing about Tony Abbott’s cheery ridicule of the more than 100,000 people who marched last weekend. If the organisers of March in March made one mistake, it was to borrow the ‘no confidence’ furphy from a corrupt, crackpot campaign that nobody except The Australian thought amounted to more than a hill of beans.

It is too soon to ask too many questions about March in March of the soul-searching variety. Like Occupy, it has shown itself to be a consciousness-raising exercise but it is not yet time to consider any lasting impacts. Visible already, on the other hand, are the ranks of commentators, both right and left, who have chosen not to grapple with the significance of the first rallies or the genuine issues they broached in favour of viciously distorting the character of the protests.

It has all been, as John Birmingham recently lamented, yet another demonstration of why so many Australians have turned their backs on a traditional media that is writing itself into irrelevancy via the mediocrity of its reporting, the oneness of its perspective, and the falseness of its claim to be either willing or able to speak truth to power anymore. On this last point, it may be that only the people are now capable of doing this in a grossly lopsided and fiercely partisan media landscape.

See you on the streets in May.

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